So I will fully admit that I was inspired to write this article after reading another article from The Angry GM called Traps Suck. I say this because all in all he has a lot of good advice on the topic of traps as a whole and well I like to give credit where credit is due. With those observations in mind I figured I'd set out a few guidelines and tips for making traps that are just damage with a description.
For those that don't enjoy hoping from one article to the next I will boil down the advice that really struck a cord with me. The first observation was that there are two types of traps, the booby trap and the movie trap. The booby trap is the one that spring up out of no where is intended to stop or kill and intruder and then it's done. The Movie trap is the slowly filling room or descending ceiling, basically the kind of trap that an entire scene can be about dealing with. The Other thing Mr. Angry pointed out was the oddity of the ability for most systems to just roll x skill and with no creativity of the player the trap is fixed. While there is truth in the fact that you rogue will know more about traps and mechanisms than you might it still feels like a cop out and I find cop outs boring.
Tip 1: Degrees of Information
All too often I've had the issue of either a trap being too obvious or impossible for a player to see. Angry discussed how to put clues that anyone could notice such as the smell of oil as a sign of a fire trap, but personally I don't think everyone will notice the smell of oil while running from a group of REALLY pissed of goblins. I also personally think a trip wire made out of something like twine will be easier to see than that and that would require some level of awareness so instead I came up with degrees of information.
The basic idea is to break a trap down into as many clues a player might notice and than rank them in how easy they are to spot. In D&D 5e this would just be referencing the standard DCs of easy, moderate, hard, and so on. For our Savage Worlds fans this could either be in number of raises or even every even number after 4 as -2 is a common penalty for harder to spot things. Usually with this I would think about things like the complexity of the trap as well as the ingenuity and resources the trap builder had. While this does allow for at least one clue in most cases (DC5 in D&D and Notice +2 in SW) these are the most obvious clues and probably the sign of a fairly poor trap.
Example: Swinging blade activated by a tripe wire.
DC 5/ Notice +2: Somewhat fresh blood splatters the walls.
DC 10 / Flat Notice: Seeing a Trip Wire if it is made of a thicker material such as twine or cord.
DC 15/ Notice -2: Spotting a common trip wire, noticing the grooves where the blade runs across the ground/walls or the slot where the blade comes from. Possibly the blade mechanism if not hidden in a wall
DC 20/ Notice -4: Noticing the blade mechanism hidden in a wall. IF not hidden spotting the release latch for the blade.
DC 25/ Notice -6: Noticing the release latch hidden in the wall.
Right there this trap become useful at all stages of play as a more skilled player simply sees more important portions of the trap on first glance and thus saving time while possibly giving options for disabling the trap. For example while an obvious trip wire is easy to see and thus avoid, the players don't know if the trap releases when the wire is pulled tighter or from the slack after is snaps meaning cutting the wire might just set the trap off. Knowing where the blades will be when this happens lowers the danger of an accidental release and knowing the release mechanism gives options for jamming the trap and not worrying at all. I'm sure some of you are thinking that just stepping over that line is fine, but a) That might not be the only line b) What if a fight falls into this area and someone is knocked into the line anyways.
Tip 2: Dramatic Tasks
This shouldn't be a surprise to those Savage Worlds readers, but for those that don't know a dramatic task is one that takes multiple actions. The standard is needing to gain 5 successes in 5 round ruled by drawing cards and complications coming up if a club is drawn. Now a deck of cards might seem odd at a D&D game, but trust me when I say they are invaluable for random generation. Doing this in SW is more or less the same as any other dramatic task, but I would like to note that if this is the case I suggest there being at least 2 but not more than 4 different parts of the trap that need handled. This is the same for D&D, but due to math in SW that I won't go into right now if you don't break them into distinct actions a single lucky roll can take all the drama from a dramatic task. The main point though is to have multiple round and actions dedicated to disabling or stopping and active trap. This can range from a very complex or hidden mechanism to the aforementioned room filling with water.
The first question that should be asked is if the trap has some sort of timer. The room filling with water will eventually fill up while a complex mechanism might allow for a player to take all the time in the world. Now the timer adds enough tension that it can be enough for most situations, get this done in x time or we die, but that take all day trap is something else entirely. If a player can try as often as they want then there is no risk and really no point in rolling other than seeing how long on a clock it took to roll the number they needed. I know some might be saying "But guards could catch them" and to that I say THAT:S A TIMER. So how do we make those rolls count then?
That's what the second question answers. What complications can arise. Like I said in SW a club can come up and make things a lot more difficult well your trap could be the same. These are complex traps after all and even a random twitch or slip might spell doom at the right time. For D&D I wouldn't even add a penalty for then the club shows up, just decide that if a club shows up and they don't get the DC then something happens. This could be alerting an alarm, triggering the trap, breaking a tool, or even jamming something in a way that it now can't be undone. The player however doesn't know if this actually stopped the trap or just slowed it down in some way and now while it might not be AS deadly it's now unavoidable.
As I said above a timed trap has enough stress on the situation that this isn't necessary, but if you want that real nail bitter moment you can always have both. As for non timed traps this now means every attempt they make has a 25% chance of ending very badly if they fail. If you want you can even draw the card after the roll to add extra suspense. The only thing I would point out is if you have the time in prep make each potion of disabling the trap have a different possible outcome for failing on a club. So a botched trip wire cut isn't the same as botching pealing back a panel to reveal the mechanisms inside. A final note on this is is that the complication outcome can actually be added to simple traps as well so make something quick, but risky.
Tip 3: Degrees of Success
This is similar to tip one and even takes some notes from tip two, but the basics is if a player is halfway through breaking down a trap that trap might not be as effective as it once was if it goes off. On the flip side this could also be used for a single trap that might be in fact a series of smaller traps.
For example, what if there was a hall full of pressure plates. Each plate hit shoots out a jet of flame. Now let's add a player that's cocky and thinks they can bob and weave there way around all the plates. Now normally there are two ways to look at this either this is one big trap and if the players fails they take all the damage or this is a series of traps resulting in rolling for each and then determine if each failed then finally rolling damage for each that did damage. Now I propose we meet in the middle and say that avoiding every play is very hard (DC 25 or -4 penalty), but failing isn't all or nothing. For every degree the player misses the DC (so by ever 5 in D&D and ever 2 in SW) the player takes an amount of damage. This means they could do great, but not great enough and singe parts of themselves or stumble all the way through and come out extra crispy. It's one roll and yes a bit of math, but it's still much more fair than a single big hit and not as time consuming as possibly 5 different trap rolls.
Now that does mean that the player that takes their time and deals with each smaller trap one at a time should have an easier time. I will admit there is no hard and fast rule here but I would say this is where judgement comes in. Maybe going slow is just an Average difficulty (DC 15 or flat roll) and maybe being extra careful or cleaver can give advantage or even a +2.
The other nice part of this is technically it's still one trap just with different parts so disabling it can function exactly the same. Either there's one spot to turn everything off and you adjust how many are shut down based on a roll or they can go from one to the next and shut them down individually, maybe both are an option and the players get to choose.
Tip 4: Be Read for Work Arounds
The last tip I can give is be ready for your players to find ways around traps that don't require any roll. I gave the trip wire as an example because in all reality unless it is a network of wires only a dick GM should call for an agility roll to just step over a rope that's probably not high off the ground and you can see. Just remember the other bit I say before about that wire still being there for someone to be shoved into later. Maybe the warrior just smashed a hole in a wall or ceiling and either the water drains out of everyone escapes. Let them, but now there's a flooded room to deal with or fighting the water and it rushes out that new hole into an unknown area. I'm not going to say you can't tell you players no, sometimes things just aren't possible, I'm just saying don't tell them no just because it's not something you expected. If it seems possible at least let them try. I get that if you put this much more work into your traps that it might be even harder to let your players outsmart them, but sometimes they do. And again like I said above these traps are actually usable for much longer so save your work, maybe reskin a couple parts to it, and use it later.
This turned out to be one of my longer articles, but I didn't want to make this a multi-parter. I hope these tips might make for some interesting traps for your upcoming games. Just remember these are tips, not hard rules and if you come up with something that I didn't cover don't let me stop you.